It’s the reality of being a winemaker: you can be braced for the worst only to find you have something stunningly delicious on your hands. That describes the 2021 vintage of Napa Valley, which some winemakers believe will be one of the finest in decades.
Vintage 2021 came, of course, on the heels of 2020 - one of the most nerve-wracking vintages in memory thanks to erratic wildfires. By the time 2021 rolled around, Napa’s winemakers were sitting on pins and needles.
But 2021 was an answer to a prayer. Although it was one of the driest years on record (approximately 10 inches of rainfall for the entire season), the nights were cool and the days were sunny and free of heat spikes. As the valley drifted into a gentle, cool, beautiful fall, the weather was sensational. The grapes were in perfect condition. The mood all over the valley was joyous. “The wines are intensely flavored,” said viticulturist Rory Williams of Frog’s Leap and Tres Sabores wineries. “We’re extremely excited about them.”
Most of the 2021 Cabernets—which will be released in 2024-- are still in the middle of their elevage. But after tasting through scores of barrel samples, and interviewing winemakers, I came away with a few thoughts on how the 2021 wines are evolving and the quality of the vintage overall.
Above all, the best wines are well-structured, powerful wines with a lot of fine-quality tannin (the result of grapes that were smaller than blueberries and yields that were painfully low). This was true for both mountain-grown grapes as well as grapes on the lower hillsides, benches, and valley floor. I also found the tannin to be offset by supportive acidity which has given the top wines a sense of brightness, energy and aliveness.
At this early stage in their development, some of the best wines had already begun to show enticing aromatics, with lots of violets, sandalwood, anise and spice notes. For the most part, their flavors—cassis, purple plums and blackberry in particular—were layered and did not skew jammy. That, as I see it, is an indication of three interrelated developments:
- a general aesthetic move away from leaving grapes on the vine for such an extended period (long hang time) that overripe flavors result
- numerous new viticultural techniques and resources (like shade cloth) that limit extreme sun exposure on ripening clusters, and
- a renewed appreciation for the beauty of Napa Cabernets picked (as they were in the 1960s and 1970s) at 12.5 to 14% potential alcohol
All of the winemakers I spoke with were very keen on the ability of the 2021s to age well. “Sometimes you just know a vintage is going to be amazing from the get-go,” said Peter Heitz, winemaker for Turnbull Wine Cellars. “The 2021s have density, power, lift, focus, freshness, sinew, spice and velocity.”
You can’t ask for more than that.
In the end, my own preliminary tastings reveal quite majestic wines with huge structures wrapped around a core of lovely dense yet bright fruit. These are wines that I believe will reveal their complexity slowly and beautifully, unfurling themselves over decades.
Photo by Suzanne Becker Bronk Photography.